Bob Barker might be remembered as the man who saw many of us through the days we were home sick from school, but for Betty White, he was one giant pain for a period between 2009 and 2010. A feud between the pair erupted in 2009 when they had a massive disagreement about an elephant at the Los Angeles Zoo.
The two were fighting over the fate of Billy, an elephant who still lives at the L.A. Zoo to this day. In 2009, there was hope that Billy could be transported to a sanctuary — something that Barker supported. But White, a staunch ally of zoos, was opposed.
Things got so tense between the pair that Barker threatened to boycott the year’s Game Show Awards if White attended, despite the fact that he was slated to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the organization that year.
To her credit, White decided to record her own remarks for the event so that Barker would attend. The two eventually made up, and in 2015 they were united in their contempt for Walter Palmer, the dentist who infamously killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.
To understand the fight between Barker and White, you have to understand the entire legal saga that surrounded Billy the elephant throughout his decades-long tenure at the zoo. In 2007, a group of visitors filed a lawsuit demanding the zoo send Billy to a sanctuary. They had spotted the elephant rocking back and forth and displaying other signs that his mental health might not be great, so they hoped that sending him to the 2,300-acre facility could give him a better life.
The zoo had other plans, which included building a larger enclosure for Billy, who was the only elephant at the zoo at the time. The zoo also insisted that Billy’s behavior was typical, and its director John Lewis told Los Angeles Magazine, “It’s kind of like when I come home and my dog is jumping up and down on the patio.”
Others disagreed. Elephant behavior expert Joyce Poole wrote an open letter in which she insisted that the behavior did not occur in the wild, and celebrities including Halle Berry and Lily Tomlin got involved in efforts to give Billy a better life. Eventually, “Golden Girls” star Betty White got involved — and that’s when things started to heat up between her and Barker.
White was a vocal supporter of the zoo and argued that Billy should remain put. White believed that if Billy was moved, other animals would be moved, too. She wrote in the zoo’s magazine, “It will not stop with elephants. Giraffes will be next. If they win this battle, they will not stop until zoos themselves are extinct.”
Concerns about the quality of life for the animals at the L.A. Zoo were not limited to Billy. In fact, Catherine Doyle — who worked as the director of science, research, and advocacy of the sanctuary that hoped to receive Billy — led repeated bids to free a number of animals from the zoo. She also worked closely with Barker, who spent millions of dollars over his lifetime to transport animals from zoos to Doyle’s sanctuaries in California and Tennessee.
White’s case for keeping Billy in the zoo was one that zoos all over the world make: animals that are kept in zoos and aquariums help serve efforts to raise awareness of the plights that their wild relatives experience, be it due to extinction, climate change or something else. Ultimately, the zoo was successful — and to this date, there are still calls to move Billy from the Los Angeles Zoo and to a home that might provide him a more comfortable life for the rest of his years.
In fact, in 2022, City Councilmember Paul Koretz filed a motion in Los Angeles expressing concern about how the elephants, including Billy, were living at the facility. Billy had been recently moved to a larger exhibition space, but Koretz based his concern on the fact that prior to that, he had been “placed alone in a small enclosure where he was kept on hard surfaces not considered beneficial for his feet and joints.”
A spokesperson for the zoo rejected the claim. Carl Myers commented that the zoo “vehemently disagreed with the characterization of the care and wellbeing of our Asian elephants and our entire elephant management program as referenced in the motion.”
The case of Billy calls to mind the recent death of Tokitae, who lived at the Miami Superaquarium for over 50 years. The whale, who was also named Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut by the Lummi tribe, died from a renal condition as conversations about transporting her to a sanctuary were taking place.
Toki had been taken from her mother and her home in the Pacific Northwest when she was young and was raised in the aquarium. Activists had raised millions of dollars to bring her home to the same waters she was stolen from, and her death at the young age of 57 (female orcas can live 80-90 years in the wild, and it’s believed that Toki’s mother is still alive at age 95) came as a blow to the community, which had rallied around her freedom for so long.
Salt was further rubbed into the wound when Toki’s ashes were delivered to the Lummi Nation for burial, despite their expressed hope that her body would be returned home intact.
Despite their disagreement over the treatment of Billy the elephant, it’s likely both Barker and White would have been moved by the words of Lummi elder Raynell Morris. While reflecting on Toki’s life, he told the Cascadia Daily News, “When they stole her in 1970, it broke a strand in the web of life. When it was broken, the only way to heal her family and to heal our people is to bring her home and start the healing, mend that broken strand.”